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HISTORY OF THE IMPRESSIONIST MOVEMENT
Monet - Impression: Sunrise
Impression: Sunrise by Monet - 1873

In the 1860's, a group of French painters rejected the current ideas about painting. They tried to free themselves of rules and traditions and to portray their immediate impression. These painters attempted to achieve a convincing depiction of the light in their landscapes, townscapes and portraits. With loose, short strokes of the brush or with dabs of unmixed paints they recorded their impressions on the canvas. From a distance, the loose combination of brush strokes merge to form the whole picture. They later became known as the Impressionists.

At the annual art show "Salon de Paris" held at the "Acedémie des Beaux Arts" (Academy of Fine Arts) in 1863, a number of these artists got rejected due to the new way of painting that they had. The jury rejected “Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe” (The Luncheon on the Grass) by Manet, primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two clothed men on a picnic. According to the jury nudes were acceptable in historical and allegorical paintings, but to show them in common settings was forbidden. Manet felt humiliated by the sharply worded rejection of the jury, which set off a firestorm among many French artists. Although Manet did not consider himself an impressionist, he led discussions at Café Guerbois where the impressionists gathered, and influenced the explorations of the artistic group. After seeing the rejected works, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the “Salon des Refusés” (Salon of the Refused) was organized. In April 1874 a group of artists, the ones rejected by the Salon, calling themselves “Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs”; roughly “Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Inc.” opened an exhibition independent of the official Salon. This was to be the first independent group show of Impressionist art. Most of them - including Cézanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot ("a bunch of lunatics and a woman," muttered one observer) - had been rejected by the Salon, the annual French state-sponsored exhibition that offered the only real opportunity for artists to display and sell their work. Never mind, they told each other. At the Salon, paintings were stacked three or four high, and crowded too closely together on the walls. At their independent exhibition, mounted in what was formerly a photographer’s studio, the artists could hang their works at eye level with space between them. At the exhibition, Claude Monet exhibited his painting of the outer harbor of Le Havre. When his brother asked him to give it a name for the catalogue, Monet is said to have replied "call it impression". Except for a few truly interested in the exhibition, the public mainly came for a laugh. However, the first show had a great impact, even if the conservative press did its best to ignore it. Conspicuously absent was Edouard Manet, recognized leader of the avant-garde. Manet never participated in any of their eight exhibitions, but his bold style and modern subjects inspired these younger artists, who came to be known as “Impressionists”.

Although the artists didn’t call themselves "Impressionists" at first, this occasion would be the first of eight such "Impressionist" exhibits over the next twelve years. An outraged critic, Louis Leroy, coined the label "Impressionist." He looked at Monet’s Impression Sunrise, the artist’s sensory response to a harbor at dawn, painted with sketchy brushstrokes. "Impression!" the journalist snorted. "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!". Little did he know that he had just baptized a new movement in art, which was about to defy anything that art had seen so far. It was a great challenge to the artists, especially those who didn't think the Impressionist movement was anything particular. Within a year, the name Impressionism was an accepted term in the art world.

The impressionism style of painting started in Paris; however Impressionist Art and the Impressionist movement did not only consist of French artists, but it did start in Paris and the French painters are among the most famous ones.

Many Impressionists painted pleasant scenes of middle class urban life, extolling the leisure time that the industrial revolution had won for middle class society. In Renoir's luminous painting Luncheon of the Boating Party, for example, young men and women eat, drink, talk, and flirt with a joy for life that is reflected in sparkling colors. The sun filtered through the orange striped awning colors everything and everyone in the party with its warm light. The diners' glances cut across a balanced and integrated composition that reproduces a very delightful scene of modem middle class life.

Since they were realists, followers of Courbet and Manet, the Impressionists set out to be "true to nature," a phrase that became their rallying cry. When Renoir and Monet went out into the countryside in search of subjects to paint, they carried their oil colors, canvas, and brushes with them so that they could stand right on the spot and record what they saw at that time. In contrast, most earlier landscape painters worked in their studio from sketches they had made outdoors.

The more an Impressionist like Monet looked, the more she or he saw. Sometimes Monet came back to the same spot at different times of day or at a different time of year to paint the same scene. In 1892 he rented a room opposite the Cathedral of Rouen in order to paint its facade over and over again. He never copied himself because the light and color always changed with the passage of time, and the variations made each painting a new creation.

Realism meant to an Impressionist that the painter ought to record the most subtle sensations of reflected light. In capturing a specific kind of light, this style conveys the notion of a specific and fleeting moment of time. Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir recorded each sensation of light with a touch of paint in a little stroke like a comma. The public back then was upset that Impressionist paintings looked like a sketch and did not have the polish and finish that more fashionable paintings had. But applying the paint in tiny strokes allowed Monet, Renoir, or Cassatt to display color sensations openly, to keep the colors unmixed and intense, and to let the viewer's eye mix the colors. The bright colors and the active participation of the viewer approximated the experience of the scintillation of natural sunlight.

The Impressionists remained realists in the sense that they remained true to their sensations of the object, although they ignored many of the old conventions for representing the object "out there." But truthfulness for the Impressionists lay in their personal and subjective sensations not in the "exact" reproduction of an object for its own sake. The objectivity of things existing outside and beyond the artist no longer mattered as much as it once did. The significance of "outside" objects became irrelevant. Concern for representing an object faded, while concern for representing the subjective grew. The focus on subjectivity intensified because artists became more concerned with the independent expression of the individual. Reality became what the individual saw. With Impressionism, the meaning of realism was transformed into subjective realism, and the subjectivity of modem art was born.

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